In 2013, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had said that if India was a computer, then the Congress was its default program. The statement was widely panned for betraying the feudal mindset of the Congress. But truth be told, he wasn’t far off the mark. Until 2013, the Congress had lost national power just three times: 1977, 1989 and 1996. On two of those occasions, it maintained a very healthy vote share of 39.5% (1989) and 34.5% (1977). A non-Congress government completed its first full term only in 2004—a full 57 years after independence. And no non-Congress government has ever completed two consecutive full terms yet.
What the Narendra Modi government will be hoping to achieve in 2019 elections is thus unprecedented. In 2004, nobody gave any chance to the Congress: the party was, like today, at its lowest-ever ebb of 114 seats and a popular prime minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee was seeking re-election. Yet the Congress bounced back, upstaging the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a close fight in 2004 and widening the margin in 2009. Can the grand old party of India take heart from 2004 and stage a strong comeback in 2019?
To answer this, one needs to study the performance of the Congress in two periods: a) 1952-84 and b) 1989-2014. The first period was definitely the era of the Congress being the default operating system of Indian politics. Even though its vote share fluctuated between a low of 34.5% (1977) and a high of 48.1% (1984), the trend line was always above 40%. But the second period saw a steep decline, both in terms of vote share and seat share.
2004 was not the best comeback performance of the Congress. In 1980, it had increased its vote share by 8.2 percentage points, and managed to boost its seat tally by 199. But that was because the Janata Party, the Congress’s primary rival, had disintegrated completely between 1977 and 1980. It is highly unlikely that the Congress will receive such a windfall in 2019. The better indicators are the Lok Sabha elections in 1971, 1984 and 2009, when the Congress increased its seats tally by 69, 62 and 61 seats, respectively. An increase of approximately 70 seats in 2019 will merely help reduce the margin of BJP victory.
Four points need to be kept in mind while assessing the chances of a strong Congress revival in 2019 elections. One, for the first time in post-independence history, the national vote share of the Congress has fallen below 20%. During the period of its dominance (1952-84), its vote share never fell below 34%. Even between 1984 and 2009, its vote share never fell below 25%. The Congress is in uncharted waters, with a new captain leading the ship. Can Rahul Gandhi help his party tide over the rough waters?
Two, the BJP now has more state legislators than the Congress. It is quite possible that the default operating system of Indian politics has changed. If so, will the Congress now come to power only episodically, just like its rivals did in the first few decades after independence?
Three, the Congress’s best comebacks (except in 1980) haven’t crossed 70 seats. But since it is operating from a very low base, it should, and can, aim for a jump of something like 100 seats.
Four, another challenge for the Congress will be to get the opposition together to fight the BJP. If the example of the Bihar elections (2015) is anything to go by, the arithmetic of a united opposition can create trouble for Modi’s re-election bid. But the inability to craft a similar opposition alliance in Uttar Pradesh (2017), Nitish Kumar’s defection to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the decision of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, not to enter into an alliance with the Congress for the 2019 elections, mean that the BJP is less worried than it could have been.
The BJP will find it extremely difficult to repeat its 2014 performance in states like Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The gains from states in the North-East and those like West Bengal and Odisha may not be enough to bridge the deficit in the north and the west. It will bank upon a divided opposition cannibalizing itself to not fall much below its 2014 tally of 282 seats.
The BJP’s biggest fear will be that losing power in even two of the three major states—Karnataka, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh—going to polls this year will create momentum in favour of the Congress. A loss in Karnataka for the BJP will certainly add impetus to the already widespread speculation about the prospects of an early Lok Sabha election. Then, there are already murmurs that a poor showing by the BJP may lead it to choose a prime minister other than Modi to attract the required number of coalition partners.
The Congress will have to change the definition of victory in the 2019 elections. If it manages to restrict the BJP to a number (200 or less) where the latter cannot form a government or can form a government only with a different prime minister, Gandhi would have something to celebrate. His may no longer be the default operating system of Indian politics, but he can justifiably claim that even the BJP is not there yet.
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